STOCKTON, Calif. — Brandon Leake is chasing a dream as he walked along the cracked pavement near an abandoned Kmart in Stockton. He wants to transform the run-down building into a community grocery store and gym.
“Here is where I got my first ever school clothes, blue light special with the layaway,” Leake said, standing just feet away from the building’s now boarded up front doors. “This community has a lot of history for me, and to see a landmark place like this just going to waste… it saddens me.”
The memories from Leake and others at the old Kmart building are starkly contrasted by how the dilapidated building sits today after being closed in 2019.
Surrounded by concrete k-rails meant to keep people out after multiple fires, the 84,000 square-foot property has become what Leake and other community members describe as an “eye sore.” One that is right in the middle of Stockton’s disadvantaged southeast side, which is also known as a food desert due to a lack of grocery stores.
“There’s liquor stores, drug stores or corner stores galore around the community, so we’re not lacking in that. We’re lacking in healthy food access, healthy exercise,” Leake said. “Nobody should have to consider what a four-mile bus ride would be, or asking church members for rides to be able to get to a grocery store because you don’t have a store nearby.”
Leake, who won season 15 of America’s Got Talent in 2020 as a poet, saw the abandoned structure and imagined a vision.
“I think a majority of the world sees it for its potential; they have an understanding that, if this place were to become something good, it could be the very thing that shifts the community for good,” Leake said.
For Leake, the idea was personal. As a parent of a young child, he saw the struggle that many Stockton families face and knew he had to act.
“I want the youth of this community to grow up where access to healthy food, access to a place where they can healthily exercise is a normality and not a luxury,” Leake said. “There’s no excuse for a city like Stockton, the most diverse city in the entire United States per capita, to not be providing healthy alternatives.”
On May 4, Leake released a video on social media making his idea public and asking for donations. Just over a week later, he was met with support and interest with people donating what they can.
“I’ve had somebody who has donated $1 every day because they said they picked up an extra ability to donate,” Leake said. “I believe that there are institutions and larger parties which can play a role in this, if they see the benefit. At the end of the day, money talks and this is a place that will earn money and earn income.”
One of those interested in the idea is Kimberly Warmsley, the city council member representing the “Kmart corridor” of Mariposa Road in south Stockton.
“I think that when we get to a point, and hopefully it’s very soon, for a grocery store to be in south Stockton, that would really bring me joy,” Warmsley said “This is something that I think every resident in south Stockton can attest to, so the time is now to really shift the narrative and bring resources and opportunities.”
According to Warmsley, constituents in her district often have to drive far to find healthy food or to exercise safely, leading to an unhealthy community.
“We just don’t have enough groceries or a variety of places to access fresh food, and that’s where the disparities come in,” Warmsley said. “South Stockton has the highest number of children who struggle with obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes and I think that is the direct correlation between having grocery stores or not.”
For parents like Leake, the status quo is a dangerous situation that can lead to bad outcomes.
While Leake said he is not the only person interested in buying the property, he believes that his idea would be the best fit and could have the ability to transform the community.
“There’s a few different companies that would like to turn this into a car lot. With no offense to said companies, it’s just a community like this is not in need of that type of service,” Leake said. “We have too much potential here.”
As Leake continues his efforts to fundraise, which has included launching a website, he hopes to continue working with others in the community to make his vision a reality.
For Leake, the campaign is just the start of a long road to fixing his community, a road that he hopes will start with the fractured pavement of his neighborhood’s old Kmart.
“This grocery store will come to life. Whether it be at this location, or somewhere else, but this grocery store will come to life,” Leake said. “This is something in which I really believe God placed on my heart, to try to bring back to a place in which gave me so much.”